Bangladesh's long road to lay empowerment

Lay leaders say most clergy move around with the attitude that they are 'a step above' ordinary people
Catholic clergy, religious and laypeople join hands to pray during the 50th anniversary program of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh in the capital Dhaka on May 27, 2022

Catholic clergy, religious and laypeople join hands to pray during the 50th anniversary program of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh in the capital Dhaka on May 27, 2022. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

By Raphael Palma, Dhaka

The 300-bed Divine Mercy Hospital near Bangladesh's capital Dhaka will become the biggest Christian-run healthcare facility in the Muslim-majority nation when it opens in November this year.

The hospital, being built at a cost of  3 billion taka (US$ 28 million), is the signature project of Christian Cooperative Credit Union Limited (CCCUL) and has about 50,000 Catholic and Protestant members with total assets of 12 billion taka (US$ 110 million).

Founded on July 3, 1955 by American Holy Cross missionary, Father Charles J. Young, this lay-run organization is the largest non-banking financial organization in Bangladesh aiming to promote the socio-economic welfare of people, including the minority Christian community.

Young allowed clergy to be advisers of the union but ensured that decision-making powers rested with laypeople, which became the key to its success, says Nirmol Rozario, 62, the union’s former president and a lay Catholic.

Rozario, currently the president of the Bangladesh Christian Association (BCA), the country’s largest lay-run Christian forum, however, says the Church hierarchy lags behind in promoting lay people like Young did more than seven decades ago.

A democratic mindset “does not exist in the hierarchy and its structure,” Rozario told UCA News.

Lay involvement is limited to membership in parish councils and diocesan advisory committees. And, most lay members of parish councils are selected based on “loyalty to clergy and the decision-making powers rests with the parish priest,” Rozario said.

“Clergymen should not consider themselves as super humans and look down upon laypeople,” he said, adding that priests should join hands with the laity for the common good of the Church “without egoism,” he said.

Lay leaders like Rozario say most clergy move around with an attitude that they are “a step above” ordinary people and they should be “considered different in all respects and everywhere.”

For a change in this mindset, Rozario suggests that priests be allowed to study in secular universities “for having a universal understanding of the common people.”

“Only philosophy, theology, psychology, and divinity won’t suffice to work with the common people in general,” he added.

“Laypeople are not rivals or competitors against the clergy. If we can avoid rigidity and cooperate with openness, the Church can be stronger and achieve much more,” Rozario said.

Bangladeshi Christians who account for less than half a percent of some 165 million inhabitants in the country pray during an Easter Mass in Dhaka on April 8, 2007. (Photo: AFP/ UCAN files)

Lay-clergy collaboration

The Parish of the Holy Rosary in central Dhaka, is an example of clergy and laity collaboration, says its parish priest, Father Subroto Boniface Gomes

The largest Catholic parish in Bangladesh, with some 15,000 Catholics, was visited by Pope Francis during his trip to the country in 2017. Most of its parishioners are migrants, who settled in the capital from various parts of the country.

“It is impossible to run a large parish like ours without the active participation of laypeople,” Gomes told UCA News.

The church is managed by a 35-member parish council that includes three priests, two nuns and 11 laywomen, the priest noted.

Laypeople play active roles in policymaking and the implementation of various decisions by parish committees such as organizing liturgy for different groups and involvement in social action through various pious organizations like the Legion of Mary, Charismatic Team, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, he said.

However, unlike in his parish in some other places, parishioners try to impose “rules and traditions” by denying the current reality, he said. For instance, some people refuse to bury their dead in a new graveyard but insist on using the old graveyard, which has limited space, because of their preferences. “This is unwanted,” Gomes said.

While it is important to ensure lay participation at all levels of the Church, sometime laity poses challenges to the clergy on conflicting issues such as marriage annulment.

“Often controversies arise over the annulment due to laypeople’s impatience, arrogance and arguments. At times, laypeople threaten and challenge priests to defy Church marriage rules and remarry in a civil court,” the priest added.

Catechumens are seen here during a baptism in this screenshot from a video. (Photo: UCA News)

Unexplained psychological distance

Despite challenges the local Church has made progress on laity empowerment, says Benedict Alo D’Rozario, 67, the first lay president of Caritas Asia, that coordinates the Church’s social action across Asia.

“Lay participation at the grassroots level is inevitable,” he said.

D’Rozario noted that ten years ago, there was no Laity Commission at the Catholic Bishops Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB) but that situation has changed now. Laypeople are involved in discussions and dialogue at various stages, he said.

Theophil Nokrek, secretary of the bishops’ Laity Commission, said that the body has three sections — Women's Desk, the Lay Associations and Organizations Desk, and Christian Community Programs Desk, to implement various programs and activities.

These groups plan yearly and periodical programs independently in consultation with the commission chairman, Bishop Shorot Francis Gomes. Programs are aimed at helping laypeople identify challenges and crises, and find solutions.

“We work with our chairman. We are not interrupted,” Nokrek, 52, told UCA News.

D’Rozario of Caritas Asia noted “a lack of enthusiasm” among laypeople to take an active role in Church affairs because of “individualism and selfishness” which force them to focus on their own economic and physical wellbeing alone.

Most Catholics have regular engagement with the Church, but there exists “a psychological distance” between clergy and laity, which is hard to explain, D’Rozario said.

“The inter-connection and inter-dependency between clergy and laity are forgotten or ignored,” and it leads to “loneliness, and disintegration” of different stakeholders in the Church.

Many Catholic students who do not study at Church-run institutions live away from their families, which leads to inter-religious marriages, driving them away from the Church.

“Many Christian students also migrate to foreign countries for higher studies and become detached from their families. This fuels some sort of disintegration,” he said.

Basic studies lacking

The Church has no reliable grassroots data to determine the status and overall situation of laypeople in the Bangladesh Church. No scientific national level surveys are conducted to collect data to help plan measures for the effective participation of laypeople, D’Rozario said.

He said that participatory efforts for decision-making by the laity are not much welcomed by the clergy whereas laity participation in policymaking can enrich the Church.

He also observed a lack of openness, accountability, and transparency among clergy, which he said resulted in clergy developing “an attitudinal crisis toward” the laity. That stops the clergy from involving the laity the in decision-making process despite all agreeing that laypeople's diverse and unique experience can enrich the Church, D’Rozario said.

In many cases, D’Rozario said, the behavior of new priests changes dramatically soon after their ordination.

“They show attitudes of superiority, even to senior citizens, and use egoistic body language. This can hurt people and change can happen only with proper counseling aiming for peace and reconciliation,” he added.

“It is important for the clergy to realize some Catholics desert the Church because of their attitude. So this should become a pastoral priority.”

Caritas Bangladesh distributes dried food to flood victims in Mymensingh on June 19. (Photo: Caritas Bangladesh)

Indigenous Catholics lag further behind

Christians make up less than half a percent, or about 600,000 people, of Bangladesh’s population of more than 165 million, according to the 2022 national census.

The majority of Christians are Catholics and about half of them hail from tribal groups. Four out of eight Catholic dioceses are tribal-dominant.

Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi diocese in northern-western Bangladesh explained that a failure to empower the laity properly poses challenges for the Church.

Rozario said his diocese has a tribal majority population of some 60,000 people, an estimated 70 percent belonging to different ethnic groups.

Bangladesh has some 500,000 but some 50 percent of them are estimated to be indigenous people. They live in the north, northwest and northeast of the country covered by the dioceses of Mymensingh, Rajshahi, Sylhet, Chittagong, and Dinajpur.  

However, due to their backwardness in education, socioeconomic situation, healthcare, and leadership role, their condition remains miserable, the prelate told UCA News by phone.

Their simplicity and imprudence have been exploited by non-Christians who grabbed their land and properties, stripping them off their social dignity.

Tribal tradition is rich, but some customs like drinking liquor have devastated many families.

“Actually they don’t take alcohol, but alcohol takes them away,” the bishop said.

Other issues such as poverty and climate change fuel internal displacement and force people to move to cities like the capital and the port city of Chittagong, contributing to their lack of engagement with the Church.

“They are often not well paid despite backbreaking jobs, so they remain in poverty. Their moral values are jeopardized. Out of frustration, they lose their ties with their families and the parish,” the prelate said. 

Rajshahi diocese is keen to help tribal youth and children to keep on them on track.

“We arrange youth and children gathering programs to build awareness and help them develop foresightedness so they can grow with dignity and contribute to the Church,” he said.

Women empowerment among tribal Catholics is in a sorry state due to their poverty and lack of education, he said.

“We are frustrated for our failures that we cannot promote women leadership among the poor tribal communities,” Rozario added.

Priestly and religious vocations are also on the decline, which poses another challenge for the Church as it struggles to meet the growing pastoral needs of people, he explained.

A Catholic priest along with the faithful offer prayers in a cemetery during ‘All Souls Day’ in Dhaka on Nov 2, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Marriage annulment a cause of concern

Like the Holy Rosary Church in Dhaka, Rajshahi diocese also considers marriage annulment as a big challenge.

Currently at least 30 annulment cases are pending in the diocese. They are dealt with by an inter-diocesan tribunal of six priests from the dioceses of Rajshahi, Khulna and Dinajpur headed by Bishop Rozario.

As per Church rules, a case of annulment “is supposed to be decided within 90 days, but it takes more than the scheduled time for a number of reasons” from the lack of proper papers to non-availability of priests because of their busy schedules, said Father Premu Rozario, a tribunal member.

Often people who seek an annulment do not cooperate with the Church by not submitting the necessary documents and fees,  Bishop Rozario said.

As the Church cannot progress in the process, some Catholics decide to follow their own path and stay away from the Church, he said.

A Catholic whose love marriage broke down after several years said that the Church’s marriage annulment process was slow which frustrates most people like him.

One of them is 43-year-old Tutul Gomes (not his real name), a Catholic who married a Protestant woman whom he met at university.

He said “a lot of disparity and disharmony” forced them to break up.

However, despite filing an annulment case with a parish two years ago and submitting all the documents “no decision has been made" so far.

People like Gomes believe the delay in such cases is an example of the clergy's inability to understand the issues of ordinary Catholics. They believe if qualified laypeople are on bodies dealing with annulments, decisions will be faster.

Gomes said he lives “as if in the wilderness” without knowing what direction to take. “I can only hope a decision will be taken before I die due to frustration.”

The success story of the Christian credit union needs to be repeated on several layers of the Church. But for that to happen priests should take the lead in building systems where laypeople can be in key positions.

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